Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Remember the Gordian Knot?

"Burn the bridge, stall the machine
Cut those ties, come kiss the guillotine
Blow your mind, break the routine
Leave everything behind, come taste the gasoline"

KMFDM - Gasoline

It's generally accepted that RPGs lose most of their nuance and flexibility in the transition from tabletop to desktop, from pen and paper to mouse and keyboard. I'm especially aware of it since I tend to play spellcasters, and when your character can reshape the very fabric of reality you end up asking yourself quite often why you're doing everything the stupid way.

Take possibly the most common RPG trope: getting on NPCs' good side by performing tasks. Golly gee, how do I get the king to trust me? Well, since I'm an illusionist, lemme just quickly mind-control the crowned clown into giving me whatever I want.
Guards won't let me pass? I'm a conjurer. Instead of an intimidation check, why can't I summon a demon with a fear aura?
Farmers want me to catch their chickens? I'm a druid. Why can't I just empathize them back or entangle them in roots?
Why would I need a ten foot pole when my character already uses a ten foot pike in combat?
Why doesn't my laser pistol double as a laser pointer?
If an asteroid needs to be moved, why can't I just shove a few dozen missiles up its hind crater? Action and reaction, biznatches!
Why can't I use my pistol to mug pedestrians?

In short, why forget all our combat-oriented pyrotechnics as soon as we've killed the last goblin or space-goblin? RPG developers customarily brag about non-combat gameplay as a separate feature, segregating everything into isolated minigames. Does no-one remember that swords make passable plowshares? Well, let's see.

There's FTL, a Roguelike throwback whose moronic "neo retro" faux-pixelated format hides an appreciable amount of substance.
Cloaking devices, missiles, scanners, hacking, even your ship's good old trusty engines can occasionally be used in dialogues outside of combat. Crewing your vessel with aliens of different species will open up yet other options.

Admittedly, I really got on this topic by replaying V:tM-Bloodlines. Some of the playable vampire clans possess mind control powers, and these were integrated into a great many dialogues as stand-ins for the good old-fashioned Persuasion skill check. Here, for instance, my Malkavian's pissed off an NPC and can try to avoid repercussions:
The white text is just regular dialogue. The green option's provided by the "Intimidate" dialogue skill. Apparently my lunatic self is just that scary.
"Who you tryin' to get crazy with, ese? Don't you know I'm loco?"
Given that I'm a supernatural lunatic, I can also use my combat-oriented dazing crowd control "Dementation" skill in this dialogue to directly project (some of) the voices in my head into good old Vandal here and afflict him with a fit of mind-wiping hysterics. After all, if it can stop a pistol-happy crackhead in his tracks in combat, why not a mild-mannered hospital orderly out of combat?

However, top prize in this contest goes to the more recent title Pillars of Eternity for going beyond socially apt combat skills and attempting to incorporate physical abilities and fire-and-lightning spellcasting into noncombat decision-making.
You'd encounter various challenges during your travels which would likely leave one or more of your party members wounded and weakened unless you succeed a specific skill check, bought the correct adventuring supplies or... one of your characters is able to tell the laws of physics to shut up and sit down. Ironically, I'd been perplexed at a very similar scenario while playing Dragon Age: Origins, stymied in my attempt to cross the lake to the island with the Circle of Magi Tower by a guard's refusal to paddle me across in his boat. Boat? I happened to be playing a mage who could flash-freeze a squad of enemies in combat with a single word. Why not just solidify an ice floe and do the polar bear thing across the lake?

Granted, overusing such reasoning would rapidly make for too many shortcuts and very dull games. Still, for something so easy to implement (check for presence of skill, insert dialogue option) it's conspicuously absent from big titles the likes of Skyrim, The Witcher, Dragon Age, not to mention MMOs. It becomes obvious that the problem is not implementation but developers' disdain for their own customers, a reluctance to offer too many choices, a refusal to reward preparation for fear of making the unprepared feel stupid.

Neither will I accept the argument that such options would necessarily constitute overpowered freebies. Casting Kalakoth's Freezing Rake in that scenario above can use up that spell for the day. Afflicting Vandal with the giggles costs blood, same as if the Dementation discipline were cast in combat. Such costs and penalties can be scaled and balanced.

No, the only issue at stake here is the stupidity of the public. The public is linear. A wealth of options bankrupts impoverished minds.

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